Netanyahu's favours were 'currency', prosecutor says as corruption trial starts

Maayan Lubell
·3-min read

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli prosecutor told a court on Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had helped a business couple to clinch deals worth hundred of millions of shekels in exchange for favourable coverage of him on a news website they controlled.

Speaking at the opening of Netanyahu's corruption trial, state prosecutor Liat Ben-Ari said: "The relationship between Netanyahu and the (co-) defendants became currency, something that could be traded."

"This currency could distort a public servant's judgment,"

Ben-Ari said.

Netanyahu has pleaded not guilty to charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud in a case that, along with an inconclusive election last month, has clouded his prospects of remaining in office. It is the first criminal trial of a sitting Israeli prime minister.

In a video statement on his Facebook page after the day's court session concluded, Netanyahu again accused Israeli legal authorities of mounting a witchhunt to remove "a strong right-wing prime minister" from office.

"This is what a coup attempt looks like," he said, using a term he has invoked before about the prosecution's conduct.

The state said Netanyahu was responsible for regulations that allowed a telecommunications power-couple, Shaul and Iris Elovitch, to win deals worth "many hundreds of millions of shekels" in return for them sweetening coverage of the premier on the Walla news site, which was then under their control.

Former Walla CEO Alan Yeshua, testifying on behalf of the prosecution, said that while employed there he had been "barraged" by demands from the Elovitchs and by Netanyahu confidants to promote the prime minister and play down or attack his political rivals.

"The Elovitches asked me not to let the editors know that the reason for the requests had to do with imminent regulatory moves," Yeshua told the court.

The coverage demands prompted "daily arguments" with staff who "put up a fight", Yeshua said.

Iris Elovitch, who like her husband denies wrongdoing, interrupted Yeshua, shouting: "How much can you lie?"

Netanyahu, who faces two additional cases, arrived at the Jerusalem District Court wearing a dark suit and black protective mask. He huddled with lawyers as protesters for and against him could be heard yelling outside.

He spent an hour in court, departing with its consent before Yeshua testified.

Meanwhile, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began consulting with party delegations on who might form the next coalition government - a toss-up after the March 23 election, the fourth in two years, gave neither Netanyahu nor his rivals a clear mandate.

Rivlin said ethical considerations could factor into his decision, apparently alluding to Netanyahu's trial.

"I do not see a way in which a government can be established," Rivlin told representatives of centrist Yesh Atid, the largest opposition party, which hopes to unseat Netanyahu's conservative Likud. "The people of Israel should be very concerned that we may be dragged into a fifth election."

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood and Angus MacSwan)